A ski trip to Europe can be a dream or a nightmare. You might spend a week in a lovely hotel in a storybook village, skiing powder in the company of charming, multilingual sophisticates. Or you could wedge your jet-lagged self and your belongings into a shoebox-size room and trudge to distant lifts in your ski boots. In truth, most trips are wonderful, and the terrible things are really more like disappointments. Knowing what to expect enhances your chances of a great trip.
GETTING THERE: The major airline gateways are Geneva (for all French and western Swiss resorts), Milan (the Italian Alps), Munich (most of Austria), and Zurich (western Austria and the rest of Switzerland).
LANGUAGE: In Austria and Switzerland, virtually everyone you'll encounter speaks at least tourist English. This is less assured in France and Italy.
TERRAIN: This is the number-one reason we cross the Atlantic to ski. The mountains go on forever, with a low tree line and an outrageous expanse of wide-open slopes, vertical chutes, and humongous bowls. The major ski resorts have mammoth vertical drops and dozens¿sometimes hundreds¿of lifts.
CULTURE: This is the number-two reason we cross the Atlantic to ski. The Alps display the patina of centuries. A ski vacation there is a cultural experience, where you can immerse yourself in French, German, or Italian culture, language, and cuisine.
PISTE & OFF-PISTE: Much Alpine ski terrain is above timberline. Each route¿called piste or pista¿is marked with stakes in the snow. The pistes are numbered, corresponding to the trail map. Any run that is marked or cut through the trees at lower elevations is referred to as on-piste skiing. Everything else is off-piste, whether a lift-served cirque beside groomed pistes or backcountry terrain far from the lifts.
LIFTS: Some ratty surface lifts and antique chairs still exist, but a decade's worth of upgrades means that cable cars, funiculars, gondolas, pulse lifts, and high-speed chairlifts abound, especially at major resorts.
LIFT LINES: Europeans are mannerly in most social situations, but in lift lines, they're killers. There are no lift mazes, and skiers are wickedly aggressive. Don't be surprised if people brazenly tromp on your skis, elbow you, or plant a pole between your skis. Best bet for beating the pushy crowds is to get as high up on the mountain as early as possible.
SNOW: It depends. Last winter, the Alps had too much. Other years have been lame, especially early and late season. You probably won't find Utah-light, but you won't encounter Sierra cement either. If you can lay freshies off-piste, you'll think you've gone to heaven, but when the snow sets up, it's hell except on the pistes. Snowmaking exists, but not like in the States.
WEATHER: Not as sunny as the Rockies. Not as rainy as the Pacific Northwest. Colder than Colorado or New Mexico. Warmer than Canada, Montana, or Maine. The biggest early-season problem can be visibility. For this reason, nonholiday parts of December and January are bargains, while March is high season.
INSURANCE: Ski patrol as we know it does not exist in the Alps. Check whether "rescue" is included in your package or if your health plan will reimburse you, but be prepared to pay on the spot for emergency assistance if you need it. If you're not covered for the worst-case scenario, purchase insurance along with your lift pass¿it's cheap.
SKI SCHOOL: Many Euros love ski school, despite often huge, highly structured classes. Yanks hate it. Better to hire an instructor who doubles as a guide (preferably English-speaking) and request off-piste skiing.
RESORTS: You'll find two types¿old farming villages transformed into charming resorts in deep valleys, and "purpose-built" on-mountain resorts where charm is not a feature but ski-in, ski-out convenience is. While the French have somme quaint ski towns, they really wrote the book on purpose-built resorts. The Austrians opt for charm, atmosphere, and tradition (think gingerbread-trimmed chalets). The versatile Swiss and devil-may-care Italians offer a variety of styles.
ACCOMMODATIONS: No matter what your budget, expect whistle-clean rooms and gracious service. European lodgings all use a rating system, ranging from one to four stars. In a one-star pension (a tiny family-run bed-and-breakfast), you'll get a functional room and perhaps a private bath. Two-star lodgings generally include private baths and more frills. Three-star accommodations are often in pretty, small hotels. If money is no object, book into a classic four-star hotel and feel like royalty¿or at least nobility.
FOOD: Most hotels include breakfast and dinner in their packages. Expect a buffet breakfast with lousy fruit juices, a few cold cereals, and perhaps boiled eggs, but excellent baked goods, cheeses, and cold cuts. Dinner is generally a limited-choice menu. A mountain lunch can be a quick self-service sandwich or a leisurely multicourse feast¿but always of a higher quality than here.
COST: If you're comparing the Alps and the Rockies, a vacation of similar length can cost roughly the same if you are flying to your destination, especially from the East Coast. Packages to Europe usually include airfare, airport-resort transportation, lodging, and at least breakfast and often dinner. Lift passes are extra.
For a list of tour operators who specialize in European packages or to enroll in "Europe 201," check out the Travel section right here on skiingmag.com.